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'It's not against the laws' - 7-1 row explodes as ex-coach brands tactic immoral

By Ian Cameron
Jasper Wiese of South Africa looks on from the substitutes bench during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between South Africa and Romania at Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux on September 17, 2023 in Bordeaux, France. (Photo by Adam Pretty - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Springboks head coach Jacques Nienaber has once again defended his use of the controversial 7-1 split at his latest press conference, as critics brand the tactic as potentially dangerous.


Nienaber once again rolled out the 7-1 split for South Africa’s crunch match with Ireland in Pool B, an unorthodox ratio that is a world away from the average 5-3 forwards versus back split that most international sides plump for.

The Leinster-bound Springboks boss insists there is nothing illegal about the risky innovation, despite the whinging of some critics.

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Former Scotland coach turned pundit Matt Williams has gone as far as branding the move as borderline immoral, suggesting it could put players in danger.

“Is it legal? Yes. Is it smart rugby for the World Cup? I’ve got to say yes. Is it good tactics? Yes. But it is not morally correct?” asked Williams on a Virgin Media podcast. “What I’m saying is that if lower levels of the game copy the Springboks, and they will, there are props and second rowers playing in lower levels of the game. If they are fatigued and the opposition bring on seven fresh forwards and they go for a scrum later on in the game knowing they could get a penalty and win the game, those guys’ spines are in danger.

“I will not be quiet, because I’ve seen it. All of us that have seen it first hand have a responsibility to remind the next generation to not go back there.”

Nienber batted away any suggestions that the decision was anything but an innovation within the rules of the game.



“I think if there is innovation in any sport it gets reaction, positive or negative. This is obviously unique, it is the first time a team has named seven forwards and one back on the bench so that is why I would say it’s innovation. That will get reaction. In terms of player safety, I don’t get that. I know nothing stops anyone else doing it and it will be a sad day, I think, if you’re innovative in the laws of the game and then they would change that.

“It’s not against the laws of the game and I don’t think it has any bearing on player safety at all.”

Nienaber was also quizzed on which he picked first, his bench or his starting fifteen.

“That’s a tough one,” said Nienaber. “In our team, because I don’t know other teams, our bench isn’t necessarily what I would call a bench. Sometimes people get an idea that if you are on the bench you are probably not as good as the guy who starts. But like we have said numerous times, with the team and squad we have here that is not necessarily the case.

“I won’t say we start with the bench, we select 23. I know it is probably a cliché but that is genuinely how we do it. They are selected for specific reasons.


“This is an important game and we all know when we came into this pool, everyone knew this would be a tough pool to get out of. From the first game against Scotland there was massive pressure and then Romania and now Ireland and then there is still Tonga.

“A win for us or for them will put you in a good position to get out of the pool and that is why there is pressure. But that was there when the World Cup started. So it doesn’t actually change for us personally because the pressure was set, we said we are playing knock-out rugby from game one. Nothing has changed from game one.”



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CT 301 days ago

I had a vision that Ireland will win the battle but loose the war ,final Boks Vs Irish,Boks Victory get back to me when it's done Bennie boy

Drew 301 days ago

Theres nothing unfair about this. If you haven't got 14 forwards that are all world class, tough break, thats sport. Find another way to win. Ridiculous. Its like saying you can only bring on replacements who are not as good as your starters. Ludicrous

Andrew 302 days ago

The 7-1 split is within the laws and regulations of world rugby, stop complaining.

Ireland (and others), cannot even field a team of locally born players needing to buy overseas players in order to remain competitive. Take these guys out of the team and see how you fare....

Finlay Bealham (Australia), Rob Herring (South Africa), Jeremy Loughman (USA), Joe McCarthy (USA), Bundee Aki (New Zealand), Jamison Gibson-Park (New Zealand), Mack Hansen (Australia), James Lowe (New Zealand)

Sunny 302 days ago

Those running world rugby are a pack of scared rats, and cowards to say to South Africa that the reserve bench is, and should a 5/3 split, 5 forwards, 3 backs. South Africa have always been known as bullie's, and bullie's shouldn't be allowed in sports, as it isn't allowed anywhere else in society.

Phillip 302 days ago

It will be an interesting game,and I'm pretty sure that in the unfortunate event of two backline injuries, that Kwagga is not just going to slot into the backline and lean on his sevens experience. I'm pretty sure that he has been practising on centre and wing since February and that he would be fully aware of the defence structure and the backline gameplay to slot right in. He has the speed and the tackling skills that would be required if needed. I personally think that this was not a quick juggle before the NZ game and this was a long term well prepared plan since at least February.

Drew 302 days ago

Matt Williams comments about safety are purely opinion not backed up by data.

finn 302 days ago

I'd like to see only three replacements.

How often are there more than three injuries in a game? Having three subs means you have plenty of injury cover, but that you're still going to finish the game with lots of tired bodies and most likely a couple of guys playing out of position, which would be a great recipe for some end-to-end exciting rugby.

Having 8 substitutes not only increases injury risk, but also turns the game into something resembling american football moreso than it resembles amateur-era rugby union. That's not the game I want to see but its the game we've got, and South Africa are well within their rights to exploit that. Regardless of ruleset, I'll always be a fan of different teams taking radically different tactical approaches!

Gerry 302 days ago

Yes, Mat. I presume the bigger players should not be allowed to play either, should you insist on absolute safety. Perhaps we should forget about scrums and tackling.

Drew 302 days ago

Matt Williams. Soon you will tell us to ban Fijians because they so big and dangerous

Rudolph 302 days ago

You got it so wrong, it’s the versatility of the Bok players that allows them to do a 7-1 split. There are two replacement forwards that can slot in at the backline any time of the day and will at least perform a defensive role with ease, namely Kwagga Smith and Deon Fourie.
Versatility is the new name of the game!!

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Shaylen 3 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

These guys will be utility players Nick it cannot be helped because coaches cannot help themselves. Rassie looks at players like these and sees the ability to cover multiple positions without losing much. It allows the 6-2 or 7-1. He wont change his coaching style or strategy for one player. At provincial level players like these are indispensable. If there is an injury to your starting 12 but your back up 12 is a bit iffy then a coach is going to go with the back up 10 who is gold and who can play a good 12. Damian Willemse for the Springboks is an obvious case, for the Stormers its the same. Dobson plays him at 12 or 15, with Gelant in the team he plays 12 but if Gelant goes down he doesnt go for his back up 15, he just puts Willemse there. With Frawley its the same at international and provincial level. He just slots in wherever. Frans Steyn made a career out of it. He was much maligned though as a youngster as he never fully developed into any role. He then went to Japan and France to decide for himself what kind of player he was, put on muscle and retained his big boot, ran over players and booted the ball long and came back into the Springboks after about 3 years away and was then certain about how he wanted to play the game no matter what position. Coaches cannot help themselves because they only want what is best for their teams and that means putting your most talented players on even if it means you cause them some discomfort. Sometimes players need to decide how they want to play the game and then adapt that to every position and let the coach decide how they want to use them.

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Jon 8 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

I think the main problem here is the structure of both countries make up. They are going to have very similar.. obstacles(not problems). It will just be part of the evolution of their rugby and they’ll need to find a way to make this versatility more advantageous than specialization. I think South Africa are well on the way to that end already, but Ireland are more likely to have a hierarchical approach and move players around the provinces. Sopoaga is going to be more than good enough to look up one of those available positions for more than a few years I believe though. Morgan would definitely be a more long term outlook. Sacha to me has the natural footwork of a second five. Not everything is about winning, if a team has 3 players that want to play 10s just give them all a good go even if its to the detriment of everyone, this is also about dreams of the players, not just the fans. This is exactly how it would be in an amateur club setting. Ultimately some players just aren’t suited to any one position. The example was of a guy that had size and speed, enough pace to burn, power to drive, and speed to kick and pass long, but just not much else when it came to actual rugby (that matched it). New Zealand has it’s own example with Jordie Barrett and probably shows what Reece Hodge could have been if the game in Australia had any administration. Despite the bigger abundance of talent in NZ, Jordie was provided with consistent time as a fullback, before being ushered in as a second five. Possibly this was due to his blood, and another might not have been as fortunate, but it is what it was, a complete contrast to how Hodge was used in Australia, were he could have had any position he wanted. When it comes down to it though, much like these young fellas, it will be about what they want, and I think you’ll find they’ll be like Hodge and just want to be as valuable to the team as they can and play wherever. It’s not like 63 International Cap is a hard thing to live with as a result of that decision!

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